Backgrounds: Photographing multicultural Britain

Curator Darrell Vydelingum introduces Backgrounds, a photographic project celebrating multicultural British identity.

Darrell & Justine (2019/2019) by Yumi CodnerSomerset House

Exploring immigration

Darrell Vydelingum is an artist-curator who works across multiple art forms, from visual arts to fashion, photography and film. Recurring themes in his work include equality, social change and revealing untold stories. He sees culture as a conversation for everyone, not something that is exclusive, which is why all his projects have public participation at their heart. Here he introduces BACKGROUNDS, a photographic artwork celebrating and documenting the diverse range of cultural backgrounds in Britain today.

Ruth, Dubheasa Lanipekun, 2019/2019, From the collection of: Somerset House
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Emeka (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

Immigration! A dirty word. A word that fuels anger and argument. A word that divides and polarises.

But immigration is who we are, the influx of people, cultures, languages and ideas from around the world have made this nation what it is.

So I want to make a new case for immigration, a true case for immigration. I want to reclaim and celebrate immigration, and place it centre stage in a positive narrative about Britain.

Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain is an exhibition I conceived and co-curated with writer Ekow Eshun at Somerset House in London.

It meets the challenge head on, ten
artists each share personal stories creating a positive and true portrait of immigration.

But I wanted to take this idea further and open up the conversation. So alongside the exhibition I created BACKGROUNDS, an invitation to the public to have their own portrait taken and share their stories. To explore what identity means today and to celebrate the rich diversity of our cities.

Robert, Zeinab Batchelor, 2019/2019, From the collection of: Somerset House
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Norma (2019/2019) by Zeinab BatchelorSomerset House

Working with five young talented photographers from Create Jobs, we set up a pop-up studio over a weekend to coincide with the Windrush anniversary: a commemoration to mark 70 years since the arrival of Caribbean migrants on the Empire Windrush ship to the UK.

BACKGROUNDS was dedicated to the studio photographers of the past; Maganbhai Patel
(Masterji) and Malick Sidibé who used the camera to tell the story of their subjects.

Like many studio photographers of the 1970’s, Masterji, based in Coventry documented the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the newly arrived migrants. These photos were sent back home, a proud record showing they had arrived safely and assimilated in a new land.

Malick Sidibé portrayed daily life in Mali, describing the way his subjects ‘came alive’ in his studio. And that’s what happened with BACKGROUNDS. I realised that we were not just taking a portrait but opening a conversation with our subjects.

During each session, they talked about their lives, their history, their cultural identities, how they saw themselves and how others saw them.

The studio was free and open to all.

Riya, Timi Akindele-Ajani, 2019/2019, From the collection of: Somerset House
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Rachel (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

The exchanges were fascinating. There seemed to be generational differences and many of
the older individuals who had been born in India, Ghana or the West Indies, saw themselves very much as British. "I was born in another country, my heart is there but my home is here, I’m British," said one.

Another talked about the treatment they received when they came in the 1960’s: "it took some time for both of us (me and Britain) to get used to each other. It’s a delicate relationship, one of love and hate."

Many ‘second generation’ participants talked about their lack of knowledge about their
parents migrating here: "It’s something we never discussed, my parents wanted to look
forward, to see us grow as adults, rather than their own past journeys."

Younger people born in the UK often rejected the idea of being British and chose to identify with their parents' original place of birth: "I know this country doesn’t like me, so it’s hard for me to see myself as being British."

Another commented on Brexit and how hostile words and language of the past had re-surfaced, overt racism rearing its ugly head. Some saw very little shift in the state of our society, in people’s behaviour and attitudes, whereas others saw hope for the future, for their own children and families.

Shimmy (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

BACKGROUNDS was a positive space full of openness and good energy. So my heartfelt thanks to all of the participants who shared their personal stories and brought this project to life. From London, Pakistan, India, China, Japan, Bosnia, Trinidad, Egypt, Spain, Barbados, Ghana, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Jamaica, Montserrat, Sri Lanka, Dominican Republic, and Nigeria.

BACKGROUNDS took a snapshot of our society, but it became more than that - a powerful and compelling picture of our diversity; a rich, dynamic portrait of Britain today.

Jude, Janice, Astride, Lamour & Kettyna, Yumi Codner, 2019/2019, From the collection of: Somerset House
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Indira & Otto, Maki & Cecil (2019/2019) by Yumi CodnerSomerset House

Backgrounds was inspired by Indian photographer Masterji's portraits of newly arrived South Asian immigrants and their families in Coventry. The project aimed to create a portrait of 21st century Britain today. We worked with five young Magunum-trained photographers who photographed visitors to Somerset House over the course of one weekend in June, and uploaded the portraits live to a dedicated Instagram account.

Follow @backgroundsproject / #backgroundsofbritain

The project launched at Generation Get Up! Weekend, a two-day programme of talks, workshops, screenings and food marking the first national Windrush Day at Somerset House.

Backgrounds is a collaboration with Create Jobs, conceived by creative director Darrell Vydelingum as part of Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain, a free photography exhibition exploring what it feels to live as an immigrant, or descendant of immigrants, today.


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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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